An inexplicably cruel horror show of teenage manipulation, the story of Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy was equal parts fascinating and repellent. When the news broke of the tragedy, first of Roy’s death by suicide and then later the chilling revelation that his girlfriend Michelle had egged him on in his pursuit of death, it quickly became one of the most talked-about true crime stories of the decade. So it was only a matter of time that a streaming service like Hulu would turn it into a melodramatic miniseries, as we see in The Girl From Plainville. The show’s strengths are undoubtedly its two lead actors, with both Elle Fanning and Colton Ryan putting in vibrant, nuanced performances. Still, it’s occasionally listless and often makes you wonder why this story needed such a by-the-numbers dramatization in the first place.
When Michelle Carter (Elle Fanning) tearfully tells her family that her boyfriend Conrad has taken his life, they’re completely shocked. Not because he’s killed himself – but because Michelle has never even mentioned him to them. Despite her secretive relationship with him, after his death Michelle throws herself into the performance of grief, even watching clips of Glee where Rachel mourns Finn for inspiration.
Her way of coping with his death is aggressive, and Fanning brings to the role a sort of weaponized doe-eyed expression of emotional fragility. She makes herself the center of attention at his funeral and subsequent memorial fundraisers, displacing his own friends and family. Conrad’s mother (Chloe Sevigny) does her best to take this all in stride. After all, the girl is heartbroken, and some allowances must be made. But everything changes when she sends a text to one of her friends in a rare moment of guilt, admitting that, after he called her mid-suicide attempt while having a change of heart, she encouraged him to get back into the car. In a second, she goes from a grieving girlfriend to a sociopathic murderer.
The Girl From Plainville does a good job of bringing to life the strange, codependent relationship between Conrad and Michelle. By depicting their text exchanges as in-person conversations, it visually creates a sense of closeness between the two that more accurately reflects the intensity of their emotions. The couple only met in person a handful of times in real life, but it’s hardly compelling from a narrative perspective to show an endless series of texts on screen. So this choice is a clever workaround, both dealing with that potential issue of storytelling and presenting commentary on the artificial intimacy that relationships conducted entirely via text can create.
In these moments, the show takes liberties with the reality that it’s most successful. A clear highlight of The Girl From Plainville is not one of the court sequences or a dramatic argument between the two unstable lovers but an impromptu musical number. In a fantasy sequence after Conrad’s death, Michelle is on a jog by her house, and she imagines a Glee-style duet with Conrad where they sing “Can’t Fight This Feeling” together. Let’s be honest; it would be a mistake to have Broadway star Colton Ryan in your cast and not let him sing. But more importantly, this sequence provides valuable insight into Michelle’s psyche: She has tremendous difficulty differentiating reality from fantasy and is so caught up in the idea of the tragic love story that she thinks nothing of the damage she causes as she tries to achieve it.
If The Girl From Plainville had more creative sequences like this, which step outside the box of what we’ve come to expect from true crime miniseries, it might have justified its own existence. But it too often plays it straight, presenting us with little more than a dull recounting of the events that led to Conrad Roy’s death. It’s interesting because the actual real-life story almost beggars belief, but the show does little to add anything that couldn’t be found in a true-crime documentary or podcast. Still, the performances from Fanning and Ryan go a long way in making us care about these two tragic teenagers, and there’s something about it that is compulsively watchable.